Legends of Myself 81

Posted on July 2, 2013

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81. Hartley Bay, 1960: An Epiphany of Wolves

I have always considered 1960 an important year.  The Boneyard happened then, and my journey up the Inside Passage.  In the Slough at Gitanmaax I learned to swim, and in the dynamite shack beside the railroad tracks and the Skeena Estuary I discovered stars and fairy tales.  In the rooms above the Grand, I read my first book in a day, and I began to show some mastery of school.  And in Hartley Bay, I had my first epiphany.

The occasion was my lying in bed at night and hearing the wolves howling in the hills behind the village.  The wolves have always been a part of the life at Hartley Bay.  They have entered into the stories there.  In the hungry winters of the 1930s, a time as hungry for beasts as for humans, I guess, the wolves came down into the villages and killed the village dogs.  And the villagers took stern measures to convince the wolves that it wasn’t in their interest to attack the human communities, a lesson that the wolves—intelligent creatures—eventually learned, although it was a ruthless lesson.

WOLVESI knew nothing about the history of the village with the wolves.  Despite European myths to the contrary, wolves almost never attack humans.  I knew nothing about that, either.  I’m not sure that knowing they seldom attacked would have reassured me, anyway, lying in my bed, hearing their howls drift down from the dark treed hills back of the house.  I did not feel safe at all.

The idea of being safe began ruminating in my skull.  In my dark bedroom under the blankets, I considered where I could go to achieve it.  Well, the water wouldn’t do, because you could always drown.  I thought of the water I had seen a thousand times from a fishboat, how even the clearest water was obscured by depth.  It was easy to drown there.

And where could you go on shore to be safe?  Deserts were too dry.  Mountains had avalanches.  Forests had wild animals.  Could you build a castle?  But every castle has a weakness, every castle could be torn down, every castle could be besieged.

Build your wall strong, gather enough food, gather enough water, gather enough ammunition, and you’re still not safe.  Food gets eaten, water gets drunk, ammunition gets fired, and eventually you have to leave, venture out into the world.  And even if your supplies of everything last and your wall continues to stand, there are earthquakes, volcanoes.  The earth could tear itself apart to get at you.  I don’t think I even considered fire, flood, storms, disease or accidents that night.  I could not yet imagine madness, betrayal or the many variations of human weakness, or the frailties of self.

But I didn’t have to know every hazard to conclude that night what I have never changed my mind about:  there is no place of safety.  Absolute security is impossible.  There are hazards imbedded in every escape.  Which means that all you can do is the best that you can.  Look both ways before crossing the street.  Hang onto the railing when hurrying down the stairs.  But beyond good sense, there is no point in staking your existence on being afraid.  No amount of fear will make you safe, so fear of life, fear of living, is a waste of time.

That’s what the wolves behind Hartley Bay told me that night so long ago.  I didn’t lose all fear, by any means, only that certain kind of fear which is incapable of courting novelty or taking chances.  If security is an illusion, I concluded as time went by, then it wasn’t worth sacrificing principle in the pursuit of it.  If security is an illusion, then you may as well chase your dreams.

I really have no idea of what the wolves were really getting at that night so long in Hartley Bay.  Maybe they were just complaining at the moon.  But the message as it has come down to me, standing at the far end of the long echoing hall of experience, is that you shouldn’t be afraid to live.

Life is full of hazards.  There is no cure for that.  Make of it what you can.

Posted in: autobiography